Natural Born Storytellers

For the past couple of years both the writer and the scientist in me have been fascinated to watch a live storytelling experiment playing-out in my daily life: at what age do we start telling stories?

For the first year and a half or so of a child’s life they can’t communicate enough verbally to tell stories. After that it is fascinating to see how quickly storytelling becomes part of everyday life. I imagine it varies from child to child, depending on their interests and the inclinations of the parents, but for our eldest boy (who turned three last month), his imaginary world is incredibly vivid. Not only that, but when he recalls events he naturally tends towards the dramatic. For example, a couple of weeks ago he was standing on the wooden edge of a flowerbed when he overbalanced and fell off. Instead of saying, “Mummy I fell off the flowerbed,” he said, “Mummy, I was perching on this piece of wood when… [dramatic pause]… SUDDENLY a puff of wind came and OOF I fell RIGHT on to the path.”

When my husband Paul and I first started playing imaginary games with Boy One, he was a little nonplussed, but he got the hang of it remarkably quickly. His imaginary world became almost as real as the world around him. We have had tears because his imaginary dog biscuit broke before he could give it to his toy dog; Paul has been given a dirty look for pretending to eat Boy One’s imaginary biscuit, leading to Boy One having to go back to the exact same spot he got that one from and “make” himself another; bedtime has been delayed because his imaginary dog-friend Tansy is lost (and let me tell you it is VERY hard to find an imaginary animal… turned out she was in my glasses case. Tansy has been a member of our family for about six months now and shows no signs of leaving.) If Boy One hands you something imaginary and you forget and use that hand for something else a minute later, you better have a good story about how you managed not to drop what he gave you. Everything he overhears any adult talking about becomes fodder for his next game.

Now we have Boy Two as well. Boy Two is coming up for a year and eight months old. He too is beginning to tell simple stories. Yesterday, I found him picking up each stuffed toy in turn, holding his water beaker to its mouth and saying, “cuppa tea dog… nomnomnom ahhh!” … “cuppa tea zeb’a… nomnomnom ahhh!”… “cuppa tea monka… oooh hot!”. He often calls his big brother to sit in an imaginary car with him, makes bubbling noises for three seconds then leaps to his feet shouting, “We hee-ah!”

I find this all rather wonderful. Humans are natural storytellers. We want to create worlds and act out ideas and embellish the mundane. We are hard-wired to create and to enjoy creation. Perhaps this isn’t a surprise. Books, television, plays, films, operas, ballets, folk songs, comics… the list of ways we tell stories is huge and there can be few people who don’t love at least one of them. Our real challenge as parents and teachers is not how to make children love storytelling and imaginative play, it is how to prevent them losing that love. What the future needs more than anything else is dreamers, people who’ll ask “what if..?”

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think Boy One has made me “a quarter of two pounds of flour please” to eat on our aeroplane as we pop to “far, far, far, far away to show Tansy the sea”.